As we see the kingdom of God expanding in the first century, we are amazed at how the good news of Jesus was spread as well as the people who became Christians. Although most of the teaching was initially in Jerusalem and Judea, with the increased persecution from the Jewish leaders, Christians began to enter areas farther away.
“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:4-8 NIV)
The precise town where Philip went is not specified in the text. Scholars have suggested at least two possibilities including Sebaste and Gitta. Sebaste was the main city of Samaria at this time, having been rebuilt by Herod the Great. This was a few miles northwest of Shechem, Jacob’s Well, and the burial site of Joseph. Gitta is said to have been the hometown of Simon the Magician according to Justin Martyr.
Even though we can’t pinpoint the exact location, we do see Christians carrying the message of Jesus northward into Samaria. We recall what Jesus said before his ascension: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The message had now expanded into Samaria.
We also see that the message was accompanied by miraculous signs. Although these healings were good in themselves and brought joy to the area, the purpose was to draw attention to the message. As a result of the signs the people listened to what Philip had to say.
“Now for some time a man named Simon had practised sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.’ They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” (Acts 8:9-13)
Many responded to the good news of the kingdom and Jesus and became Christians. Even Simon, a magician who had amazed the people in that area with his ‘sorcery’ and tricks, could tell the difference between what he was doing and what Philip did. He was amazed at the miraculous healings and signs that he saw. He, too, became a Christian.
One lesson we can see in this is that we cannot separate our message from our actions. Even though we no longer have apostles to pass on the miraculous signs today (see Acts 8:14-18) what we do as Christians needs to reflect the message that we proclaim. If we are saying one thing and doing something else, if we are preaching love and forgiveness while our lives proclaim hatred and antagonism, people will see the difference. Our lives must reflect the message of Jesus.
When we proclaim Jesus and live lives that have been changed because of that message, people will more readily listen to what we are saying.
Photo by Jon Galloway: Nablus and the north, West Bank, November 2019.
Readings for next week: Acts 3-8